Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Covenant Between the Father and the Son?

More on Hodge and Federal theology.

Hodge relies on one of the odder aspect of Federal theology.  That is, the theory of the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son.  According to this theory, the work of atonement and therefore the covenant of grace given to the Church, is possible because of a legal agreement between the Father and the Son that if the Son becomes incarnate and atones for sin that the Father will reward him and give redemption to the Church.  This theory goes back to Johannes Cocceius, the 17th century German theologian who founded of Federal theology.  

There is a interesting difference between Cocceius and Hodge's treatment of the subject though.  For Cocceius, the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son is the first stage of the abrogation of the covenant of works.  Redemption means for Cocceius a total elimination of the covenant of works, similar to Luther's idea of the law becoming a lex vacua in heaven.  By contrast, Hodge views it as a legal basis of the covenant of the gospel.  In other words, the gospel can't be legitimate unless it possesses a legal foundation as a pre-existent agreement who's terms of fulfilled.

Two comments should be made about this.  First, Karl Barth critiques this position in Church Dogmatics 4.1 (in this case he is engaging Cocceius) by noting that it is absurd to think of God making an agreement with God.  The Father and the Son are separate persons, but not separate entities.  They subsist in the being of the one God.  God doesn't need to make an agreement with himself to get things done; he just does them.  I think this is right on.

Secondly, from a Lutheran perspective I think this shows how deep Hodge's legalism is.  Instead of thinking of the gospel as something that breaks in from outside of existence under the law, Hodge can't fathom God simply acting out of unilateral grace.  God is, as we saw in the last post, tied within the straightjacket of the law.  Hence, he can't given be gracious unless a legal agreement prompts him to do so.   


  1. I always had the Calvinist position of a covenant between Father and Son explained not as a kind of legal contract but as an agreement to help. Kind of like in Luther's hymn Christian One and All Rejoice where Luther writes:

    But God beheld my wretched state
    Before the world's foundation,
    And, mindful of His mercies great,
    He planned my soul's salvation.
    A father's heart He turned to me,
    Sought my redemption fervently:
    He gave His dearest Treasure.

  2. Steven, The point is that in the Luther hymn the act of redemption can be one of spontaneous grace. God sees and loves creation, and therefore sends the Son to the enter into the law. For the Reformed, there can be no spontaneous grace. Grace can only come about if it is first secured by a legal agreement. I'm not saying that for the Reformed that there is no grace or that God doesn't want to save. What I'm saying is that for the Reformed, it is impossible for God to act outside the law. God is fundamentally law to the point that he is unable to act out of spontaneous grace. He must first establish a legal agreement that eventually results in grace.